Project Gorillas are Subject Matter Experts

[Non-legal mumbo jumbo: This piece was inspired by a conversation with fellow PMs at a Silicon Valley PMI job search networking breakfast. That conversation inspired me to write this little piece of fiction to bring my revelations to light. This blog goes the next step beyond the “Too many hat” blog that I did in February.]

“Well it’s rather complicated”, the words were spoken by the pleasantly smiling engineering director. Having heard this lead in more than once, I instantly translated it to “I don’t expect you to understand, you don’t have a double masters in computer science and physics.” Not that I said anything, I smiled back serenely and listened as he dove into a highly technical discussion that lost me in the first three sentences. But that was fine,

I leaned back in my chair and watched as he grabbed a whiteboard pen to start diagramming.

As he launched into a multi-level architectural diagram, in handwriting that would have confused a pharmacist, I glanced over at Hogarth. My gorilla was on the other side of the room, happily mapping out a Rube Goldberg machine. As near as I could tell it was a machine designed to give the Engineering director a wet willy through the use of canned air and plant sprinkler. Hogarth had also heard this speech before.

 A couple minutes later the director sat down, a look of satisfaction on his face. I looked up at the whiteboard, looked back at my notes. I then turned and looked at one of the software managers. She and I were old colleagues and I trusted her input completely. She’d already sent a status update that had given a high-level status. Quoting it almost exactly I said, “So you can’t get the network layer to talk to the application layer and you think it will take four weeks to fix?”

 “Well if you want to boil it down to that…”

 “Yes, yes I do,” I said, looking at Hogarth’s satisfied banana grin.

SME translate to “You Don’t Understand”
Spend a little time on any of the job search websites and you’ll see a very common trend, in Project Management job descriptions (Edit 2017- as well as Scrum Masters and Agile Coaches). It is couched in various ways, but essentially it boils down to PM jobs “requiring” expertise in whatever field the product belongs in. Working on an ERP deployment? Then they want you to be an ERP expert, preferably someone who’s coded and deployed. Building the next best handheld device to use Android? Then they are probably asking for a degree in electrical engineering or at least mechanical engineering.

In the end, it typically boils down to a long list of very project management related skills, communication, organizations, facilitation, working with remote teams, etc., all topped off by a cherry of expertise in some highly specific job field (There is really a field called Human Ecology Engineering). The end result being jobs that become very tailor-made to a specific job or industry. Are you the best project manager there has ever been at your computer game company? That’s great, but you’ve got no manufacturing experience so there is no way you could be a good project manager for a new line of toys. You do not have subject matter expertise, so you are not qualified. Even my beloved Manager Tools reinforces this concept to some degree. They describe three methods of management power, Role, Influence, and Expertise. It is usually implied that expertise is SME knowledge in the industry or product you are working on.

My challenge to all this is simple. As a project manager, I am a Subject Matter Expert, in Project Management. (Edit 2017- And now, as an agile coach, an expert in agile transformations).

A Project Manager’s SME knowledge is in getting a project from inception to launch within the bounds of the project’s constraints and while keeping the team from flying apart like wine glass shattering when it hits the floor.

Let me explain a bit more- Project Management has officially been around since, at least, the first US Nuclear submarines. Such massive projects with very tight dependencies between teams needed someone who could oversee the whole thing. These first PMs were usually taken from heads of a department or some senior engineer. He might not understand the full workings of the nuclear reactor, but he was a PhD. in naval structural engineering (or vis-a-versa).

Moving through the close of the 20th century, project managers were typically pulled from a ‘technical’ field. The majority of PMs tended to be from engineering backgrounds of some kind. A large chunk of the rest rose up from the ranks of whatever they had been doing. A Logistics Planner had served on the front lines of shipping for years, before being tapped to coordinate a global logistics plan.

It was not until the close of the 20th that this really began to shift. We started to see PMs who came out of business backgrounds. They still very much tended to be experts in a field. If you hadn’t worked in insurance, being a PM at a risk management firm was pretty much a no go.

It hasn’t been until the 21st century that we have started to see Project Managers as a truly distinct discipline of its own. In the early 2000’s the CEO of PMI met with a major university about Project Management (Thanks to Cornelius Fitchner for his great podcast series where I learned this). The university was adamant that Project Management was a course, not a discipline. Today a Google search for Project Management Bachelor’s Degree yields over 6.4 million hits.

Today we are finally starting to see that Project Management is an area of expertise. The art/science of guiding something from start to finish is a critical and important as the art/science of laying out a PCBA board for the next great DVR product. The PM doesn’t need to know the details of PCBA board layout. What he needs is the vocabulary to communicate with the guy who does know about PCBA and the mutual trust of a well-communicating team.

At the very fundamentals, I believe that a good Project Manager can manage any project. There are of course the typical caveats on “any” but I truly believe that PMs are far more industry portable than most industries seem to be ready to concede.

I’ve had this conversation with several people in the last couple of years. As you can imagine I’ve met with a fair amount of resistance to the concept. I had an IT PM adamantly insist that if you weren’t an expert in IT infrastructure or some major component of IT, then there was no way you could be a PM in IT.

“Kind of like a software PM going to work for a hard disk manufacturer?”


I may not convince everyone. That being said, I am confident in my Project Management skills. How can I not be? I started as a Customer Support rep giving game hints for the Nintendo game console. I’ve worked in handheld devices, mobile phones, consumer software, voice recognition, enterprise storage software, virtualization, and more. My most current job? I’m that former Software PM doing program management at a hard drive company. One of the best compliments I have ever gotten was given by my current boss. “I hired you because you don’t have twenty years of HDD baggage. I needed someone who would focus on the project.”

On the front lines,
Joel BC
Veteran, the Project Manager wars
Want me to talk to your gorilla? Send me an email
You can follow me on twitter, @JBC_PMP

Who is Hogarth? Read Blog 001 to find out all about my personal gorilla.